Syrian migrant crisis symptomatic of collective failure

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The stand-off between Poland and Belarus over migrants from Syria and other Mideast countries has once again highlighted the failure of the international community to adequately address both the underlying causes of human displacement and the measures desperately needed to ensure migrants immediate safety. Many in the region have expressed dismay at the predicament of thousands of migrants at the border and their politicization by all parties, including the European countries, which have shown little appetite for opening their own borders. Ultimately, however, much of the blame has been placed on the Assad regime, which is trying to show that it still controls Syria, while actually relying on the Russians and Iranians to do so. 

Europe, one of the regions most affected by the migration flows, has long struggled with the question of how best to accommodate migrants, while trying to avert the threat of populism across the continent. However, these “growing tensions,” as The National’s Damien McElroy puts it, are now also risking relations between former allies. For example, “Britain’s Home Office on Friday accused France of going slow on efforts to restrain people from leaving its shores on desperate boat journeys over the busy English Channel. … With the deep fracture of Brexit, the issue is now becoming a wedge between the two old frenemy nations. That this issue comes at a time when the volume of incomers soars is only something of a spiral. … From a humanitarian standpoint, the situation is intolerable. Overarching interests are being drawn into the maelstrom, while states are being pulled into tension and conflict. Instability is burgeoning in a way that is dangerous both for Europe and its neighbors.” 

It is against this background that a crisis about the fate of migrants from the Middle East has led to a border stand-off between Poland and Belarus. Tara Ansari Esfahani, a specialist in European Asylum Law, explains in a recent op-ed for Al Bawaba this latest debacle: “Decisions made in Brussels, combined with the policies of the Polish government and the political conflict between Belarus and the EU, have created a disaster at the border. Asylum seekers trying to cross into the EU are treated as a collective bargaining chip by both Belarus and EU-backed Poland, who seek only to further their own political goals. … Migration is a natural human phenomenon that will continue and be exacerbated with climate change, proxy wars, political turmoil and more. The member states of the EU must put aside political motives and xenophobic sentiments and seek a humanitarian solution to migration. This can only come by restructuring the current asylum framework and providing routes of lawful migration to the EU.” 

Given the role that Turkey has played in preventing migrants from entering Europe, it is not surprising that much of the commentary on these recent developments has come from Turkish observers. For example, Daily Sabah’s Şeymanur Yönt is critical of the European Union and of the Belarussian government, while also pointing out that others, including the United States and Russia, must intervene to alleviate suffering at the border: “Assessing the conflict from its ethical, legal and political dimensions, and understanding the possible motivations of the parties involved in the conflict require looking back at the start of the conflict between the EU and Belarus. Doing so also requires taking into account the fact that the parties involved in the conflict are not only Belarus, Poland and the EU, but also international organizations, Russia, the United States, Turkey, several other Middle Eastern countries and, most importantly, the people at the border. … At this point, one thing is clear: Belarus is instrumentalizing migrants and the EU does not want to give up against Belarus. Instead, it is fighting back by imposing more sanctions. However, it is also clear that this is a dirty conflict that puts thousands of people’s rights at stake.” 

Omer Onhon, a former Turkish ambassador to Spain, has also spoken out about the crisis in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, condemning the “weaponization” of the human suffering, while arguing that the only long-term solution lies in stabilizing the situation in Syria: “Human sufferings in one part of the world cause a chain reaction of events beyond the borders. Among many other things, they lead to political crises between countries and even carry the risk of direct conflict. ... People who flee their countries may suffer great pains on their journey, they may be faced with discrimination and abuse at their destination if they ever reach it, their lives may be threatened and they may even fall victim occasionally. But even then, the situation in their home countries must be far far worse as they accept all these risks. This leads to the conclusion that problems are not in this country or that country, but at the source. The real and sustainable solution is also at the source. So long as problems are not solved back home at the source, anything that is done will not go beyond trying to manage the day, not even save it.” 

In an op-ed for Arab News, Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party, provides an indirect response to Onhom. According to Yakis, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria James Jefferey during his recent visit to Turkey, underscored in one of his messages the importance of Turkey in the region, especially when it comes to a long-term solution to the crisis in Syria: “At present, Washington encourages Turkey to counter the Syrian government forces in Idlib, while in the northeast of the country it is almost at war against Ankara on the side of the Kurds. … Jeffrey’s suggestion that the Syrian crisis cannot be solved without Turkey’s involvement is not an overstatement. He may have meant it, but this should not be construed as Ankara having a monopoly on the methods that could lead to the solution of the crisis. In fact, it holds several keys for that purpose, but it may contribute to the solution only if these keys are used in a constructive way.” 

For its part in the conversation, the Syrian government has accused the United States and the West of not only worsening the plight of the Syrian refugees, but of creating the humanitarian crisis in Syria that impels so many people to leave Syria. Press TV reports that at the conclusion of last week’s meeting of the Russian and Syrian Joint Coordination Committees on Repatriation of Syrian Refugees, both sides agreed “that the return of internally displaced people and refugees to their original places of residence remains a top priority for the Damascus government, which is making its best efforts in this regard. … However, the West funnels huge sums of money to terrorists, and actually prevents the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, it said. … Moscow and Damascus say Western sanctions against Syria and the military occupation of the Arab country are the main obstacles to the return of the displaced people and the country’s recovery from a decade-long campaign of foreign-backed militancy and destruction.” 

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has made conciliatory gestures to its opponents to stem the outflow of Syrians from the country. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently issued a number of decrees, amounting to amnesties, for those who had abandoned their military posts or never showed up for military service. This is the background for an article written by the Syrian News Agency (SANA), which states that “[t]he process of settling the status of the wanted civilians and military personnel, the deserters, and who avoid regular military (compulsory) service and reserve military service continued on Saturday in Deir Ezzor in the framework of the overall settlement process in Deir Ezzor Province.”



  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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